A year abroad
Leaving your hometown and jumping into a new culture — fully immersed in the language and way of life — can be intimidating, but not for Fredericksburg High School 2018 graduate, Esten Cooke.
Cooke participated in an 11-month exchange program through Rotary International with 50 other U.S. students to embark on his journey to Germany.
After learning about the exchange program from students who were on exchange to Fredericksburg, Cooke decided to graduate early and travel to a new country to expand his knowledge on other cultures.
“I met some exchange students my junior year, and half way through the year they said, ‘You could do this,’” Cooke said. “You get to see the world. I couldn’t pass that up.”
Cooke spent a year in Germany, enrolled in a school to complete his senior year of high school.
“The first six months were a struggle to understand everyone when they spoke,” Cooke said. “By the end of the trip, I could understand my teachers and communicate.”
Staying with three different host families allowed Cooke to gain insight on the everyday routines of the German citizens.
“It’s not that different,” Cooke said. “They still go to the supermarket, get groceries and come home. It’s the little stuff, the cars are smaller and they eat more fresh food. It was all pretty much the same, everything just looked and felt a little different.”
Learning the transportation systems posed the greatest challenge during Cooke’s exchange.
“It’s a cultural thing, but the North Germans, where I was, are a lot colder,” Cooke said. “There is not much personal interaction. Like when I walk down the street here, I usually say hi to strangers, but they don’t do that. They avoid eye contact by looking at the sidewalk and pretend not to notice you.”
After navigating the bus system, he moved to his peers, making friends with his classmates and other exchange students.
“It was strange because you have to get used to a whole new way of doing things,” Cooke said. “If you keep an open mind about things, it is not that hard.”
After completing his year of schooling, Rotary allowed the exchange students to travel together to other countries.
“It was fun mixing with different cultures,” Cooke said. “I like cultural diversity in my life to keep learning about new people and new things. I like to learn other things from them. It’s a renewed sense that contact with people who are different and believe different things than you is important to well-being.”
On that trip, Cooke learned about other cultures in the European nations.
“We started in Italy, to Monaco, Spain, France, England and ended in Amsterdam,” he said. “We got to be tourists for that last month.”
Upon his return home, Cooke has joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, hoping to help natural disaster victims around the country.
“One of the main takeaways is confidence, and not trusting other people’s opinions above my own,” Cooke said.